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Ways to make college more affordable

Can you afford college?

If you’ve lost your job or watched your college savings vanish, you may be among the countless people lying awake at night, wondering how to say yes to college for next fall.

Many families are stunned by annual costs of $20,000 or more cited in the acceptance letters students have received recently.

But what families have to pay is not set in stone.

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Parents and students can make college more affordable if they think of themselves as shoppers rather than college applicants.

They can ask for financial help from colleges that have offered little or none. And they can cobble together financial aid from colleges, tuition payment plans and student loans that won’t need to be paid off for 10 years or more.

Virtually anyone can afford to go to college if they shop. In fact, the more desperate your situation, the more likely you are to receive help if you hunt for aid.

“Just don’t let your child fall in love with a particular school,” said Kalman Chany, a New York financial aid consultant and author of “Paying for College Without Going Broke.” Here’s what to do:

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Remember colleges are nervous. As you look for financial aid, realize that your income and savings factor heavily into the offer you receive, but that offers will differ. Chany said they vary more this year than he has seen during years of financial aid consulting.

“Private colleges are very concerned about the ability of people to afford college,” said Jim Scannell, president of Scannell & Kurz Inc., a firm that helps colleges with enrollment. They realize that families began applying for the coming freshman class before the “dark clouds started looming.”

Consequently, they are afraid students will back out at the last minute and spots won’t be filled. They are planning to provide more money for tuition discounts.

If money is an issue, students can apply even now to small private colleges they may not have considered, Scannell said. He expects that as families weigh their financial conditions, seats in small, lesser-known colleges will be opening up until the first day of classes.

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See whether it’s a good value. As families search for aid, they must be careful about comparing information, said Joyce Smith, executive director of the National Assn. for College Admission Counseling.

Because colleges are worried about filling classes, some are accepting more students than they can accommodate. As a result, a student might end up having to pay for housing off campus or having to enter a study-abroad program without financial aid.

For students seeking jobs in a difficult economy, college job-placement offices might be crucial, and some provide little help.

Update your situation. If you lost your job late last year, don’t assume that the college financial aid office has considered your plight.

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When colleges offer students financial help, they typically base the aid offer on student and parent financial conditions from the previous year. So if, for example, you lost your job in November and are still looking for work, your income looks higher on paper than it is now.

Go back to the financial aid directors at colleges and tell them about your new financial condition. Ask about Pell grants and other grants that don’t have to be repaid, plus Perkins loans for lower-income students.

The Education Department recently sent a letter to financial aid offices telling them they could base federal grants, such as Pell grants, on a person’s current and likely employment over 12 months instead of the past.

Realize delays could work against you. Sometimes when parents lose jobs, they think their child should work for a year and then go to college. Chany said that could be the worst move, reducing financial aid by thousands of dollars.

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Under financial aid formulas, student income is supposed to be routed to college, while most income from parents is expected to go for broad family needs. The result, Chany said, is that if a student worked for a year and made $10,000, the family’s financial aid the next year could be reduced by about $4,000.

Instead of working, Chany suggests looking for financial aid first.

Many financial planners suggest that students consider attending community colleges for the first two years and then transferring to schools that will provide a diploma with more cachet. But it’s expected to become more difficult to get into some community colleges as additional students go there to reduce costs.

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gmarksjarvis@tribune.com


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